Sunday, January 01, 2006

The Opposite of Faith Is Not Emptiness

It is common for those of religious faith to use the words “empty,” “meaningless,” and “pointless” to describe the inner lives of non-believers. For believers, religion is so central to their being that its absence is a black hole. This is troubling for many reasons, not the least of which is that throughout history such thinking has been only a small step away from declaring those who don’t share one’s religious views as worthless; worthless people are expendable people, which of course is the essential logic of global jihadists and suicide bombers.

Personally I will never understand why a belief in a contradictory, irrational, and vengeful supernatural being, especially one who is preparing to dish out Armageddon-like punishment, should provide “meaning” in my life. (Of course this is not all that the Creator represents for the big three religions, but it is a dominant theme throughout the Bible and the Koran. As for Buddhism, Jainism, or Hinduism, I am less sure since so many gods and spirits vie for attention in these religions).

To correct the misperceptions of the religious regarding the beliefs of secular-minded people, it would be helpful for those who are not religious to put forth their views on what gives life meaning. I hardly claim to speak for all atheists or agnostics, but I would like to do my part in having such a dialogue.

Here’s a quick summary of what one non-believer believes:

1. To be alive is like winning a cosmic lottery with the longest possible odds, and therefore life is the most precious thing of all: the original miracle. (I have a saying that I think would make a great bumper stick: Show me something that isn’t a miracle.)

2. Since there is little chance that our consciousness or identity remains after we die (although all the energy does, since it cannot be destroyed), I cherish this life dearly. The only heaven and hell that I know are the ones here right on Earth (life in California is pretty heavenly, while life in Darfur couldn’t be more hellish).

3. There are those who believe that humanity would descend into chaos without the fear of punishment in the afterlife. I strongly reject this view. Realizing that this is probably the only chance at life you will ever get is a powerful incentive to act more responsibly and compassionately.

4. Human life is not the only form of life that has value. Animals (and plants) are other miracles, and we should go to great lengths to protect them as well.

5. Through purely rational means we can conclude that there are powers much greater than us in the universe that we don’t understand, especially those at the source of existence. I have no idea what forms these powers take, but they awe and humble me. I look forward to continued scientific progress trying to solve life’s great mysteries (although I concede that we probably will never figure “it” out completely).

6. Human morality can be derived through reason, science, and introspection; religious dogmas are a specious and incomplete method for establishing moral codes. While I recognize that moral relativity presents a danger, I don’t think it’s the natural conclusion of non-religious ethics. In addition, this same danger is no less present in religions than it is in secular ethics (as evidenced, just to begin with, by the widespread disagreements among those who hold religious beliefs on everything from war, capital punishment, abortion, gay rights, animals rights, etc.).

7. As much as I value my life, the thought of living forever doesn’t necessarily appeal to me (modern conceptions of heaven make it seem like an endless bore), but I wouldn't mind pushing the envelope to130 or 140. I eat my greens and (lucky me) have good genes.

In summary, as someone without a shred of religious faith, I want to declare loudly and proudly for this New Year that I have no shortage of meaning in my non-believing life. Blind faith is not required to have purpose, awe, a strong moral code, and the deepest appreciation for being alive. The only requirements are a thinking mind and a feeling heart.

J.S.

P.S. A great article on evolution is in today’s NYT.

P.P.S. For those interested in the issues surrounding capital punishment, which I discussed a couple weeks ago, check out this discussion by Becker and Posner. They make a persuasive case that the death penalty DOES in fact deter crime.

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